Davidson Institute for Talent Development
This Tips for Parents article is from a seminar hosted by Thomas Greenspon, who provides a wealth of advice related to perfectionism.
We live in a competitive, winner-take-all culture that seems to reward perfectionism while disregarding its significant personal costs. Perfectionism is the combination of a desire to be perfect, a fear of imperfection, and an emotional conviction that perfection is the route to personal acceptability. It is a self esteem issue; mistakes are experienced as signs of personal failings and as grounds for lack of acceptance by others. Anxiety -- about failure -- is a hallmark of perfectionism and distinguishes it from even the most ardent pursuit of excellence.
Perfectionism can appear in different “flavors.” Some perfectionistic people would never be late for anything, while others are chronically late because there are always things to get done -- perfectly -- before going somewhere. Some perfectionistic students get everything done ahead of time, while others procrastinate because they fear getting a less-than-perfect grade. The behaviors may look different, but the underlying chronic anxieties about failure are the same.
These anxieties are an ongoing burden for perfectionistic people. They constrict creativity, make intimate relationships difficult, and, ironically, hamper success. This is never healthy. The positive personal characteristics of perfectionistic people, such as conscientiousness, energy, commitment, and persistence, should not be confused with perfectionism itself; they would still be there if perfectionism were to disappear. Those who pursue excellence, in the absence of perfectionism, are able to stretch themselves and commit all of their talent and passion to a task while taking mistakes and failures in stride as a part of the process of growth. When perfectionistic people are successful, it is despite, not because of their perfectionism. Everyone is disappointed by mistakes; perfectionistic people can be devastated by them.
Although perfectionism may seem like a simple matter of mistaken beliefs about mistakes, this begs the question about how such beliefs arise. Perfectionism is a relational phenomenon; that is, certain family relationship environments can give rise to it. A closer look at three fundamental aspects of human psychology helps us to understand this:
- Human beings are meaning makers. We make consistent sense of our world of experience so that we can pursue our immediate and long-term goals in life. We develop emotional convictions -- consistent lenses through which we see and interpret the world -- out of consistent ways our families react with us as we grow and develop. If, for example, it seems that family affirmation and acceptance come only with successful performance, rather than with effort and persistence, a child may worry that mistakes are flaws that threaten attachment, and that the solution is to be perfect;
- Emotional regulation is the central motivating factor in our lives. For example, we look to increase pleasure and contentment, and to reduce fear and pain. The struggle for perfection is an ongoing attempt to mitigate anxieties about failure;
- Empathic bonds of emotional connection with essential others are crucial for our growth and development and continue to be vital to our emotional wellbeing throughout our lives. Anxieties about making mistakes are ultimately anxieties about acceptability and about the security of family attachments.
Perfectionism is not a part of giftedness. Gifted children may, like other children, be perfectionistic, but the zeal, persistence, hard work, and devotion to mastery that many gifted kids exhibit represent a pursuit of excellence that perfectionism will actually interfere with. Because perfect performance seems within reach for gifted students in school, and because many gifted students come from families with high performance expectations, some gifted kids may have a special vulnerability to perfectionism.
Moving past perfectionism is less about finding the right thing to do, than it is about creating an environment of acceptance. It is a recovery process. It is important to challenge our children, and ourselves, to reevaluate beliefs and change behaviors. It’s important to make clear, though, that we love our children whatever they do or do not accomplish. They should know that mistakes are a part of everyone's life and that these mistakes can always form a basis for learning, but all suggestions for changing behaviors and thoughts will become most useful in an environment in which a feeling of acceptance is secure. Absent this, explaining to a perfectionistic child that she needn't worry so much is simply heard as one more criticism.
The road to change is based on the creation of dialogue. The more we can talk over our concerns, expressing our feelings without pointing fingers, the more likely we are to be able to make sense together and find common solutions. Some of the specific elements of such a dialogue are:
Empathy: The intention to see the world through our children's eyes in order to understand what making a mistake means to them, and what the anxieties are about;
Self Reflection: The honest consideration of what we ourselves may have been contributing, intentionally or not, to the problem by our actions or attitudes. As one example, has praise and attention been elicited only by outstanding performance, or is there also recognition and affirmation for effort and persistence? Can we encourage success without demonizing failure?
Encouragement: The consistent effort to point out what we appreciate and like about our children as the people they are, not simply for what they can achieve.
Such dialogues, including these elements, are the antidotes to perfectionism. They send a message to children that they are important to us, that we are willing work together to solve problems, that we respect their ability to do that, and that we are willing to share our own mistakes and concerns with them. With that sense of acceptance, children can gain the courage to be imperfect, and the freedom to be who they are.
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